In a bookstore over the holidays I happened to come across a new edition of something had thought I would never see again: the legendary National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook. Originally published in 1971, the publication has at its heart what purports to be the yearbook of the fictional C. Estes Kefauver Memorial High School in tragically woebegone Dacron, Ohio. What struck me anew was the astonishing level of graphic detail that the Lampoon design staff brought to the task: every aspect of the yearbook (as well as other documents such as a basketball program, literary magazine and history textbook) is rendered with awful, pitch-perfect fidelity, from each badly-spaced typeface to every amateurish illustration. I would suggest that the Lampoon's designers, Michael Gross and David Kaestle, anticipated our profession's obsession with vernacular graphic languages by almost fifteen years.
Tony Hendra's book Going Too Far documents the rise and fall of postwar American humor, with a special emphasis on his years as an editor at the Lampoon. Perceptively, he sees the hiring of art director Michael Gross in October 1970 as a turning point in the magazine's fortunes. Originally, the founders of the Lampoon had sought to project an anti-establishment image and hired a "hippie" firm called Cloud Studios to evoke the look and feel of the underground press. This was a mistake: the writers were creating sophisticated, deadpan parodies, while the artists at Cloud Studios were making the magazine look self consciously "funny;" as Hendra says, this was "the print equivalent of a comedian laughing while delivering a joke."
Enter Michael Gross, no graphic radical but a Pratt Institute-educated art director with experience at, among other magazines, Cosmopolitan. The publisher wanted a professional-looking magazine, which Gross was ready to provide. But the editors were worried he would play it too straight.
Gross had to explain to them that this was exactly what the content needed. As he told Hendra years later, "I flipped through the magazine and there was an article about postage stamps [a piece called 'America as a Second-Rate Power,' a new issue of stamps commemorating modern American failures], and there were all silly underground comic drawings. I said, 'What youve done here is no different that what Mad magazine would do. You're doing a parody of postage stamps. They would have Jack Davis do funny drawings of postage stamps. You've got an underground cartoonist doing funny drawings of postage stamps. What you need is postage stamps that look like postage stamps. The level of satire you written here isn't being graphically translated."
Thereafter, Gross and his partner David Kaestle crafted each monthly issue of the Lampoon with a degree of care that would put a master forger to shame. As Hendra observes, "Any graphic form, and indeed any print form, had to look like the original on which it was based, whether it was a postage stamp or a Michelangelo or a menu. Only thus could the satirical intent come through with crystal clarity." In effect, Gross and Kaestle more resembled movie production designers than traditional art directors, creating convincing backgrounds before which the action could unfold. Unlike the knowing graphic quotations that we would come to associate in years to come with designers like Paula Scher and Tibor Kalman (or, to cite a someone who has probably never even heard of the magazine, Jonathan Barnbrook, particularly in his work with Damien Hirst), there is no trace of irony in the work, just an obsessive determination to get every detail exactly right.
Gross and Kaestle do not show up in graphic design history books today, but there was a moment when they were riding high. Asked to create a special humor issue for Print Magazine in the late seventies, they proved to be incisive commentators on their own profession. I remember in particular an article purporting to explore replacements for the 7-headed cobra emblem of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnappers of heiress Patty Hearst. The entries they created on behalf of Ivan Chermayeff, Rudolph de Harak, and Herb Lubalin all reduced the identity, through various elaborate pretexts, to the same Helvetica Medium solution.
The yearbook parody was a special project based on a ten-page piece by the late Doug Kenney, who would in turn use it as the seed for his screenplay for the 1978 movie "Animal House." The new "39th Reunion" edition, unfortunately, does not do the original justice, surrounding a facsimile of the 1971 softcover with a pointless hardcover and carelessly designed front and back matter. But the precision of Kaestle and Gross's work still shines through, and deserves to be rediscovered.